Why we need The Walking Dead

Be forewarned: I’m probably not the first person to think of these things, but I still hope you’ll find it interesting.

The Walking Dead (or TWD) is my favorite show on tv, followed closely by Breaking Bad and Mad Men. As I watched the recent season finale, I wondered why it strikes such a cord with so many people. Maybe it’s because lately all of us have had to do things we never thought we would do in order to make ends meet and…to survive. Some of us have lost homes or cars (or both). Others have even lost loving relationships due to the hardships caused by the ongoing economic crisis. We all are in crisis. We all are facing a never-ending list of difficult choices. There’s no end in sight. Even those of us who are doing well have people we love who are suffering, and there’s nothing we can do about it. We’re starting to lose hope. We look back at our lives before 2008 with great nostalgia.

So, I’ve pretty much just described the plot of The Walking Dead, without the zombies. Of course, a good case could be made to support the premise that there are plenty of walkers (zombies) in our day to day lives (Wikipedia defines zombies as “mindless, animated corpses”): insert boss joke here. Just about the only real difference between TWD and life as we know it is that we’re stuck living this out, whereas the cast of TWD is able to stroll back to their trailers, wash off the dirt and fake blood, change clothes, and have their drivers whisk them away to luxurious accommodations. Well, that and the fact that on the show they are continually on high alert for imminent, sudden death in the form of being eaten alive by a “herd” of the undead. The only thing we have that compares is the lack of affordable health care that looms over us with ghoulish delight, waiting for our numbers to come up (while we’re in-between jobs and insurance). So, I guess we are worried sick about the means to acquire health, food, clothing, shelter, transportation and fuel. America is The Walking Dead Lite; which is why we love TWD so very very much.

Think about it. Five to ten years ago the average American would probably not have been able to really relate to a group of people who were socially isolated, rationing supplies, living in tents, looting stores, shooting people in the head and using evasion to survive being hopelessly outnumbered by an unstoppable foe. The only people in our country this could have possibly made sense to were the gamers who were devoted to survivor horror third-person shooter games like Resident Evil. But I have to wonder, wouldn’t even the most avid gamers have found the premise novel and, at the very least, highly unlikely? Now that all of our futures seem so unsure, we’re convinced that the end is looming; and it’s going to be a bloodbath, as evidenced by the new reality show on The National Geographic Channel (NGC) called Doomsday Preppers. According to writer Monika Joshi at USA Today, prior to Doomsday’s premier “[NGC] commissioned an online survey of 1,007 adults in the USA, and found that 61% of Americans believe the country will experience a major catastrophic event within the next 20 years…”

Since a majority of us are already convinced that we’re doomed, why the love affair with a show about flesh eating zombies? Shouldn’t we be repulsed and avoid it at all costs? No. The beauty of TWD is that for one hour a week, we get to watch Someone Else struggle and suffer and be very afraid. We get to see Someone Else fight with friends and family over life and death choices, knowing that, win or lose, nobody’s going to be able to “fix” the problem: it’s just going to grow, or at the very least circle the perimeter of the unthinkable. For one golden hour, we are given the opportunity to think: I’m glad it’s not me. We are able to see with our own eyes that things could be so-much-worse than our current situations.

Now that may sound like cold comfort; but if you really think about it, it’s great. Each week we can cheer on the little guy against insurmountable odds. We are grateful and encouraged when they live to fight another day. We want them to live. They’re just like us; and if they can live, maybe we can too. Somewhere in the back of our minds, we think, “I could survive the apocalypse. There’s hope for me, even in that world; so maybe this life isn’t so hopeless…”

Also, in a strange way, we take pleasure in the relentless kill or be killed carnage of the show. It’s certainly not glamorized or sugar coated or overly sentimental. I imagine sporting goods stores have seen a huge spike in the sales of bows and arrows since Americans have collectively learned that shooting a zombie in the head (silently) with an arrow is ideal, as the sound of a gun shot is likely to draw the attention of the entire zombie herd (yes, my favorite character is Daryl, but that’s not what this blog is about). Between TWD and The Hunger Games, the American interest in bow hunting for survival must have skyrocketed.

Let’s face it; it was awesome when they shot all those walkers as they came lurching out of the barn. Why, because where else do we get to see our enemies vanquished so completely that they will never rise against us again? We don’t have that kind of power in our day to day lives. We crave to see wrong righted and evil destroyed. The truth is that no one in our world is perfectly good or pure evil. As Oscar Wilde said, “Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.” The Walking Dead doesn’t have to deal with that kind of moral ambiguity. They know precisely who the bad guys are and exactly how to get rid of them.

Through the eyes of the cast of TWD, we are able to see beyond the thin veil of humanity to the surest truth there is. We all die. Which, again, is why the killing is so riveting to the viewer. As a society we do so much to ignore, prevent, hide and escape death, it’s no wonder that we’re all at a loss for words when a loved one actually does die. The Walking Dead gives us the opportunity to get back in touch with our own mortality. This season we were given graphic examples of how fragile and temporary life is through the horrifying deaths of Sophia, Dale, and even Shane.

Which made me think…more than two million Americans have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan to wage war, and yet we know so little about what it’s like for them. We have nothing here to compare it to. I wonder if maybe we are somehow getting a small glimpse into that world of fear and death through this show. Who knows, perhaps it can even help us relate to soldiers returning from combat. Imagine what it would be like for the cast of TWD if they were suddenly evacuated to safety. Would they be able to go back to their normal lives? Could they ever really relax? Would they have regrets? Would they constantly be thinking about and reliving the carnage? Would they be able to sleep at night? Would they be able to trust in the future? Would they be able to trust anyone? How would they deal with the loss of friends and loved ones? Would they want to go back to the apocalypse, because it was the only world that they understood?

Some critics have felt that this season’s focus on character development rather than gore has been disappointing and boring. I happen to think it’s essential for us to be reminded of the cast’s humanity, even as it’s being stripped away. If it was all blood and guts, perhaps we’d become so jaded that we’d start cheering for the zombies. Besides, all of the characters are going through remarkable transformations as a result of their experiences, and to omit that would be something only a mindless, animated corpse would do.

AMC has been preparing us for the last few weeks for the return of Mad Men by showing commercials implying that it’s just a different version of TWD, with nicer clothes and better lighting. I find this amusing as well as sad. Perhaps there is no time in our history when the idea of a zombie apocalypse wouldn’t have made sense.
Finally, I have to wonder, having not read the comic books and not knowing how it ends, what is the cause of  the zombie apocalypse in TWD? We Americans tend to believe that there’s an answer for everything-a why. I am almost hesitant to find out. Freud said that “everyone owes nature a death.”  On TWD everyone seems to owe nature two deaths. Freud also said that the belief in previous lives, transmigration of souls, and reincarnation are products of the denial of death. So, maybe the zombie phenomenon stems from that. Even in a show about death and destruction on a global scale there is the ever present idea that we somehow continue to exist post-mortem. On the other hand, maybe we just like getting our weekly fix of mayhem, turning off the television and walking away. We like the idea of being in control.

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